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Jaunt’s CEO on how VR will “impact people’s lives profoundly”

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With virtual reality set to take off, Jens Christensen, CEO of Jaunt VR, shares his predictions for how it will transform society over the next few years.

Jaunt was born after CEO Jens Christensen and his co-founders bought an Oculus DK1 from Craigslist in 2013 and were inspired to build their first virtual reality (VR) camera, using parts ordered from Amazon and a 3D printed headset.

Now the company provides a high end VR camera for professionals, the Jaunt ONE, as well as end-to-end content creation through its production studios and a host of supporting tools.

Christensen agrees without hesitation that 2016 is the year that VR will permeate the mainstream. “Every major company is having a VR push of some kind,” he says, referring to Facebook, Google, Sony and Samsung amongst others. “This is the year that the average person is going to become aware of VR.”

And it’s not going to happen through the high end headsets, priced up to $799 and necessitating $1000 compatible PCs, but through mobile VR, like the Samsung Gear and Google Cardboard. This will be the primary channel for cinematic VR content, says Christensen, and will drive its mass adoption.

“There are 2 billion smartphones out there, and headsets cost anywhere from a few to 99 dollars. That broadens the potential market significantly – from the millions into literally, the billions.” Besides, “mobile resolution and sensors are getting a lot better”, he adds. “The Samsung Gear is one of the best VR experiences you can have right now.”

Of course, as hardware becomes increasingly available, Jaunt is here to meet the explosion of demand for high quality virtual reality content.

The company describes its mission as providing, “mind blowing experiences by working with premium content creators to create bespoke VR content – content that is produced for VR”.

One such example is the upcoming INVISIBLE – a joint project between Jaunt, Condé Nast and Samsung – the world’s first episodic virtual reality series.

With Doug Liman, director of the Bourne Identity series, leading the charge, and Dallas Buyer’s Club’s Melisa Wallack behind the script, it’s clear that today’s best talent in cinema is as interested in the creative possibilities of VR as Christensen is.

Jaunt’s advisory board includes Oscar winning actor and musician Jared Leto, as well as a multitude of other Hollywood giants.

“The goal for us is to create a large library of VR content. This will be the key, so people don’t just have their initial ‘Oh wow’ moment, but keep coming back to VR, week after week, for fresh experiences.”

VR needs its own ‘grammar of storytelling’

“Figuring out the medium itself,” is one of the biggest, yet most exciting challenges of virtual reality today, says Christensen. “How do you tell a compelling story? Eventually there’s going to be a grammar of storytelling in VR.”

It’s becoming clear that this 360° medium plays by its own rules, differing in many ways from standard 2D cinema. Attention to the technicalities is critical; for example, moving the camera whilst filming can trigger motion sickness in the viewer.

“Another thing is you don’t have a ‘behind the camera’ – in fact the cameraman has to disappear from the scene. You have to think about lighting differently, as normally you’d have lights set up behind the camera.”

Jaunt believes firmly that good VR content has to be made for the medium, not adapted to it. “Some people just bring a VR camera along to a shoot and put it on the side. That doesn’t work.

You are the camera when you put on the headset. If the camera is sidelined, then you as a viewer are sidelined. You have to put the camera in the centre of the action.

If it’s first person, you have to include interactions. Our studio, the Jaunt Studios in LA, is helping content creators foster best practices in this new medium.”

Christensen compares the phenomenon to the early days of cinema, when actors used to being on stage, “spoke much too loudly, and really overacted,” before learning how to perform to a camera that was much closer than a distant theatre audience. “I think VR is even more intimate. You feel like you’re right next to the person.”

In VR, there is no 4th wall. We come face to face with the characters of a story, standing inside the setting where it takes place. “That’s one of the powers of VR,” says Christensen. “Imagine putting someone in a situation that they’ve never been in. It can really engender empathy for people.”

The potential for this in journalism is self-evident. In the wake of one of the largest trans-continental crises faced by Europe in history, Jaunt partnered with Sky to film Syrian refugees arriving onto a beach in Lesbos, Greece.

Whilst news headlines may provide an idea of what struggles migrants are facing from a distance, VR has the power to translate that reality into a first person experience.

Christensen muses: “Imagine what else you could do. You could have the camera be a refugee. When you put on the headset, you become the refugee. You’re on the boat. You get off. You see people receiving you, then you’re suddenly in a camp. I think this would really open people’s minds to what it would actually be like.”

As the Jaunt team puts it, using words alone to describe the VR experience is like, “trying to explain architecture through dance”. To understand the power of the medium you truly must experience it yourself.

The experience is transformative, its effect immediate, and its realism convincing. It follows that acquiring investment is relatively easy for VR companies. “We let people try it out, and they said ‘Okay, this is the future.’”

What does VR mean for advertising?

VR’s implications for advertising has drawn a lot of attention from brands. Christensen is keen to bring Jaunt’s expertise into this area too, foreseeing that the highly engaging nature of VR content will transform advertising effectiveness.

“I don’t find advertising in the online video space or TV very compelling. It interrupts you. It brings you away from the content. In VR you have the whole area to play with; you can easily insert product placements without affecting the user experience. […] It will be a source of monetization that does not annoy the viewer like pre-roll content does.”

These placements don’t just seamlessly blend into the virtual environment, but are also trackable. Jaunt’s technology is able to identify how many people actually saw the placement, allowing advertising fees to be determined by ‘VR impressions’ representing accurate volumes of reach.

VR is currently largely monetized through sponsored content, as exemplified by Jaunt’s work with The North Face. In one of these pieces, a drone camera films base jumpers leaping from cliffs.

“I am not a base jumper. I will never be a base jumper. But in VR, I can experience what it’s like. It’s a great piece of content that showcases the brand ethos.”

The experience is now being used in North Face’s stores. “You go in, you put on the headset – you get inspired.”

Of course, a huge selling point of VR advertising is the lack of distraction in a virtual environment; “your attention is fully consumed by the experience you’re having.”

This level of attention is a powerful resource for all content creators, whether they be producers, directors, or organisations.

“It’s kind of a dream for brands to have people completely immersed for minutes at a time, in a world that they create. It’s a very compelling proposition.”

By investing in these experiences, brands are not only leveraging the excitement around VR right now, but also playing a vital role in its growth and development.

VR in five years’ time

When asked what VR will look like in five years’ time, Christensen predicts an unrecognizably different industry. “It’s going to be night and day. It’s going to be so different to what it’s like today.” Part of this involves VR becoming more social.

“Right now VR is somewhat isolating. You’re in the environment by yourself. The logical next step is to introduce audio and voice so you can talk to others just as gamers use headsets today.”

Some have introduced avatars as a virtual proxy for human interaction, and companies like FOVE Inc. have developed eye-tracking headsets which allow users to make eye contact with characters and other avatars.

Christensen paints the picture of a society where headsets have evolved to be “a lot lighter, a lot more comfortable,” and worn for hours at a time, providing digital dimensions around the physical world around us.

“Basically sunglasses allowing you to see through the environment – augmented reality, or AR. Then at various points in the day you might want to watch something. The glasses will go dark, and now you’re in VR.”

“It’s going to impact people’s lives profoundly. Today we look out onto the streets and everybody has a smartphone. A few years ago you’d never have guessed that would happen. They’ve become our window into the world. What if that was virtual? Why have a phone in your pocket?”

These futuristic visions would be easy to dismiss as science fiction daydreams if they were not already happening. Companies like Sony are already experimenting with interactive screens projected onto surfaces.

“We are in the very, very early days. People in five years’ time are going to look back and say ‘Can you believe we used to wear these things?’ ‘You used to put phones in front of your face?!’”

Christensen describes himself as “blessed to be in a space that touches so many different things. We work with the big tech companies, the media companies, the smartphone companies. We feel privileged to be in the middle of this burgeoning ecosystem.”

VR has been a hot topic for years. 2016 looks to be the year that virtual finally becomes a reality among consumers, ushering in a new future for all of us.